LIVE: The John Pizzarelli Quartet @ The Egg, 5/15/16

Review by Steven Stock

It was probably inevitable that John Pizzarelli would pick up a guitar, given that his father Bucky made his living that way (and is still going strong at age 90). John has been playing for 50 years now (ever since he turned six), earned a series of recording contracts with various labels since 1990, and is perhaps best known as host of the syndicated “Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli.”

At The Egg’s Swyer Theatre last month, Pizzarelli’s fretwork was riveting throughout, and his band was impressive as well, with Michael Karn plucking the double-bass strings, Kevin Kanner drumming and longtime collaborator Konrad Paszkudzki playing piano rather exquisitely. Pizzarelli’s singing isn’t as universally acclaimed as his guitar work, but his casual, seemingly off-hand style is well-suited to the urbane sophistication of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, which comprised a large portion of the rather brief set.

If you’re familiar with “Radio Deluxe,” you won’t be surprised to hear that Pizzarelli has a charming stage presence. With daughter Madeleine headed to college in the fall, Pizzarelli has “58,000 reasons for you to buy CDs after the show.” He had the crowd in stitches as he recalled an Amazon customer review of John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles with the heading “Abbey Road Kill.” (I thought Pizzarelli was exaggerating for comic effect, but it turns out the same reviewer really did pan Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter with Salted Caramel.) And when he flubbed a line in the Schwartz-Dietz chestnut “Rhode Island Is Famous For You,” Pizzarelli cheerfully owned up to it rather than skating past.

While the caliber of the playing was beyond reproach, some aspects of the performance were ultimately disappointing. There were a surfeit of medleys: “Candy” paired with “Sweet Lorraine,” “Portrait of Jennie” melded to “These Foolish Things,” and four different Johnny Mercer lyrics rolling uptown behind Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” None of these treatments did justice to the compositions, or served to juxtapose them in a new interesting light – they just sounded rushed, as if Pizzarelli wanted to cram a lot of songs into a brief set.

Moreover, a portion of the set was designed to plug Pizzarelli’s recent Midnight McCartney album. The quartet played “Silly Love Songs” pretty straight and ended up sounding like a lounge band – arguably the world’s greatest lounge band, but still… “Warm and Beautiful” was a little more interesting, Kanner breaking out brushes and practically caressing his drums. This was followed by a jaunty version of “Heart of the Country,” a song as banal as its title. The band at least gave “Let ‘Em In” a rather inventive new arrangement. It would’ve made for a delightful instrumental, but do I have to remind you how dreadful the lyrics are? Alright, since you insist:

Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor
Open the door and let ’em in

To be fair, Pizzarelli’s assignment when compiling the album was to choose songs from McCartney’s solo career, and the record (but not this performance) does boast a lovely version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Neither Pizzarelli’s current label Concord nor his accountant are likely to exhibit much interest in my preferred tribute, Pizzarelli Plays the Pretty Things.

So to recap, the level of the musicianship was incredibly high, Pizzarelli sang well, and he established a warm rapport with the crowd. Tis unfortunate then that the set list just didn’t work for me: too much reliance on medleys and a glut of mundane McCartney tunes outweighed the great Bobby Troup covers (opener “Hungry Man” and “Route 66”) and gorgeous renditions of Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Ac-cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” I’ll be back next time though, if Pizzarelli is still willing to let me in, let me in, oooh yeah…

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